Mopo: Entrepreneurship in Sierra Leone "the market for a billion people and no competition."

17 May, 2022


Affordable solar power is gradually conquering the energy markets in Sierra Leone. In a country where over 80% of the population does not have electricity access, the demand is growing fast. New technologies can increase clean energy access for communities, reduce carbon emissions, and preserve our shared environment. The lack of suitable finance is the main reason why clean energy solutions are not spreading fast enough. Contributing to SDG7, clean energy for all, Cordaid Investment Management partnered with Mobile Power (MOPO), an enterprise offering energy products accessible to the most vulnerable and impoverished communities. Being the first lender to MOPO in Sierra Leone, Cordaid Investment Management hopes to further unlock the solar power potential in Sub-Saharan Africa and catalyze change in the sector. Follow the inspiring conversation about the future of solar energy and MOPO's ambition to become the biggest company in Sierra Leone with Luke Burras, Chief Operating Officer and one of the company's founders. 

Why did you choose to do business in Sierra Leone?


Sierra Leone is an exciting market for entrepreneurs. We're enthusiastic about learning and solving some difficulties. A few weeks before I had been to Sierra Leone for the first time, I was visiting California where I thought to myself: wouldn't it have been amazing to live in California during the pioneer times of the gold rush where everything was possible? Getting off the plane in Freetown in Sierra Leone, I had the exact same feeling. Sierra Leone is a frontier place, there's not much infrastructure, no well-developed banking sector, but here, the pioneering spirit is alive and well.


On the other hand, if we were trying to launch this innovative business in the Netherlands, we would face more scepticism and competition. Sierra Leone has untapped potential for expanding business fast. Within a few weeks, you can start a business. In a couple of years, you can be across the whole country. MOPO is now in every major town in Sierra Leone. We have tens of thousands of customers that are renting from us every day. Within a couple of years, we could be the biggest energy company in Sierra Leone. We wouldn't be able to do the same in the Netherlands with only a few million pounds. But in Sierra Leone, very quickly, you can begin to be transformative.

What inspired and motivated you to go into the clean energy sector? 


One of my favorite things about this business is that I get to work with friends, with whom we have a common dream. Ultimately, we all love Africa and want to see it develop. Our technology development started out in 2013 as a part-time thing; we all were working different jobs back then. By 2017, we launched our first full pilot in Sierra Leone, and it went really well. The company's growth has been very steep since then and we have launched into lots of other nations. 


So back in 2013, when we looked at the Sub-Saharan African energy market, we saw the colossal opportunity for a billion people who don't have access to power. These people are spending an incredible amount of money on a tiny amount of energy. The development agencies would call it a problem but we saw an opportunity to access the market for a billion people. How many markets like this are there in the world? A billion people wanting for a solution, and very little competition. 


What does the energy market look like nowadays?


With only 18% of households connected to the grid, most Sierra Leoneans depend on petrol-powered stations for charging their mobile phones. These stations rely on highly unreliable, often dangerous, and polluting petrol generators and make little profit after fuel and maintenance costs


Apart from being detrimental to the environment, those old-fashioned energy types are costly. For example, around 15% of household income is spent on lighting, most of the time replacing disposable batteries. Sierra Leoneans spend 5-10% of household income on mobile phone battery charging alone. 


MOPO solar-charged batteries provide cheaper and easier available energy: solar battery provides enough energy for households to charge mobile phones and power lighting, fans, TVs, and other household appliances. As a result, MOPO customers spend 75% less when compared to charging phones on generators or using disposable batteries for lighting. 

How does MOPO’s solar battery rental work?

MOPO offers low-cost and flexible access to clean energy by renting out rechargeable solar batteries on a pay-per-use basis. Their solar hubs are located in off-grid areas and are run by local agents, having communities' trust. The MOPO model enables even the lowest income families to access affordable green energy. The positive impact on Sierra Leoneans and the environment is enormous: MOPO has provided access to energy for over 100,000 people, helped avoid 3,000 tonnes of CO2, and created many quality jobs for the local populations, especially women and youth. 

Could you tell me about the sustainable mobility solutions MOPO is developing? 

We test our new products in Sierra Leone. So at the moment, we're developing battery swap stations for electric motorbikes and tuk-tuks. We have e-motorbikes ridden by Sierra Leonean commercial taxi riders who promote e-mobility whilst reducing their costs. We should have a few hundred of those soon. We estimate that this business will be roughly 10x times the size of the current one, mainly because this sustainable solution will reduce transport costs for drivers. 

A few weeks back, the fuel price in Sierra Leone went up 35% overnight. This happens regularly as the oil price fluctuations make it really hard to have reliable fuel prices in an economy such as Sierra Leone. Besides, if you're a motorbike rider in Sub-Saharan Africa, you often don't own a vehicle but lease from someone who does. Conditions are often precarious: for six days, you pay the bike owner, then only on the 7th day you can ride it for yourself. In these conditions, the riders can barely make a living never mind growing a business. So that's why we use lease-to-own for the bike scheme, which allows riders to own the bike after leasing it. This way, we're enabling riders' to build their own financial future. 

What are your plans for MOPO?

We aim to have multiple layers of business. Our household energy product is the first step, and it is rapidly scaling across Sub-Saharan Africa. But now we are giving people e-mobility and generator replacement. Our data-driven customer platform allows us to have a customer relationship that lasts years. So we're really excited about future ideas like bringing long term customers into the global banking systems, access to credit for businesses, grid extension…the list goes on.

In turn, this will boost the country's economy. African entrepreneurs are the most innovative business people on the planet. Entrepreneurship is often inherent due to circumstances, people have to work hard and innovate to figure out a way to earn a living in a challenging and uncertain environment. So I'm really excited about the way we have been able to foster entrepreneurship, businesses, and services that will allow our Agents and ultimately the country to build itself.

Lastly, how did the investment of Cordaid Investment Management contribute to the development of your enterprise?

The major challenge in Sierra Leone is access to growth capital. There are few adequate credit markets. We are a strong company with a track record across the continent, and nevertheless, Cordaid Investment Management was the only financial provider who agreed to invest in the Sierra Leone subsidiary. Without suitable finance, it's hard to grow fast. 

Besides, we believe in using local capital to build local businesses. That means we can put local risks with people who understand the Sierra Leonean market. Partnering with CIM allowed us to have local, on-the-ground lending. CIM team understands the local context better than anyone and might be the only investor who can help localize the entire business in Sierra Leone.   

About the investment 

MOPO piloted solar-powered battery rentals in Sierra Leone in 2017 and has been rapidly growing and showed that their business model has enormous potential to scale up. Now MOPO hubs operate in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and The Gambia. The company has already built a vibrant customer base in Sierra Leone, but there are still many communities with energy needs. That's why Cordaid Investment Management provided working capital to organize new MOPO hubs, putting 6,000 new solar batteries in operations. As a result, (and along with other funding) around 212 jobs will be created in four years. 

Investing in MOPO SL offered CIM a unique opportunity to be their first lender and to claim a niche as one of the leading lenders in the green energy sector. "I believe that CIM's investment in Mobile Power will help stimulate local economic growth and light up rural communities. As over 80% of Mobile Power's agents are young people in rural areas, this investment aligns with our mandate to create jobs for rural youth," concludes Archibald Shodeke, Investment Manager in Sierra Leone.

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